Prior to last week, it was to many thinking people one of:
(a) a joke;
(b) a sick joke; or
(c) just sick.
But last week – following his emphatic New Hampshire win, with another one this coming weekend in South Carolina on the cards – it became a possible outcome that can no longer be considered an outlier.
To what are we referring ? The prospect of Donald J Trump becoming the next president of the United States.
“No, you’re wrong, Las Vegas has The Donald at 4-1 but Clinton is evens”, I hear you shouting. Well yes, you’re right. But MM is calling the bookies’ odds wrong. Trump has electric appeal to many and if more terrorism, and/or tragedy in the Middle East, takes place in the months leading up to November, then he could easily erase his current single-digit-poll-deficit to Clinton.
Hilary Clinton’s trustworthiness ratings are so low – and it’s easy to see why. She flip-flops on key issues so transparently, based on latest voter mood. TPP? For it (and at the very centre of the government that negotiated it !), then against it. Wall Street? She’s suddenly, on the turn of a dime, gone all “Bernie” now, following her embarrassing margin of defeat in New Hampshire. Her stump speeches have the content and delivery of a wet rag. She’s the soggy insider in an election where most voters are yearning for a true outsider. No wonder voters are mostly unenthused with her. It would be great to break the ultimate glass ceiling and have a woman president, but that’s got to wait for a more inspiring candidate, is MM’s guess.
Michael Bloomberg is a grand irrelevance. If he runs, he’ll win every properly thinking person’s vote – but that’s no good, as the old Adlai Stevenson joke went, he needs a majority – or actually in this case a plurality as it would be a three-horse race. No chance.
That leaves Trump to, very possibly, win the White House.
So we think it is not premature to begin asking what a Trump presidency would mean for Vietnam. We’ve thought of five things:-
* Bye-bye TPP. Trump is against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, he says. He is campaigning for greater protection against cheap imports in general. ‘No TPP’ would be a disappointment for Vietnam, since it would be a strong beneficiary of the deal, to the tune of perhaps an extra one percentage point of GDP growth per year over the next 10-20 years. However, the Vietnam manufacturing-centred growth story doesn’t get derailed by TPP not happening. Moreover, Vietnamese seafood and textile exports to the US are unlikely to be targeted; the attention would be more likely in heavier and more sophisticated industrial sectors, like steel, cars, and the solar industry, where Vietnam is largely absent as an exporter to the US. Regarding Trump’s purported economic nationalism in general, the sage joke in Texas is that if he really does want to build that wall, he’ll have to throw open the border first, in order to get in anywhere near the amount of labour that is needed to build it.
* Vietnam reform momentum: dented slightly ? If TPP didn’t happen, its impetus to impose reforms on Vietnam would also be gone. The new Vietnamese leadership of Messrs Trong and Phuc seems to be slightly less reform oriented than the previous administration, and slightly more likely to be close to autocratic-brother-in-arms China. An arrogant occupant of the White House might serve to reinforce these Vietnamese attitudes.
* Muscularity versus China. Trump is likely to fashion himself as a strongman. This would have the most impact on Russia and China, the US’s two big geopolitical rivals. Increased US stiffness against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea would of course be helpful to Vietnam, lessening the chances of a recurrence of episodes like that of May 2014, when deadly riots erupted in Vietnam, tourism from China collapsed, and the Vietnamese stock market took a quick 16% plunge – all because of a Chinese oil rig being placed in contested waters near the Paracels.
* Fewer free lunches. Perhaps in slight contradiction to the preceding point, for many years Trump has made the argument that countries that rely on US security should pay for it to a much greater extent than they do. He has mainly made this in reference to wealthy Europe and Japan. It’s doubtful that a change in military burden-sharing would affect Vietnam much. However, there might be a scarcer availability of concessional loans and other overseas development assistance from largely-US-funded multilateral organisations like the IMF and World Bank. To an extent, this trend will occur anyway as Vietnam has now reached definitions of “middle income status” and is therefore beginning to lose access to programmes designed for the very poorest countries.
* Much a-do about nothing. Though many people around the world will cringe (or worse) at the thought of a Trump presidency, wise heads are beginning to point out that one shouldn’t divine all that much from his bombast on the campaign trail. After all, pretty much every candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992 has excoriated China on trade and vowed to be tougher on it. Once in power, the candidate-turned-president has to live in the real world again. The game – especially in America – is to talk big guff to win, then sober up and run the country. Moreover, the American system makes it very difficult for the president by himself to achieve much anyway. Trump’s long term flexibility of views tends to suggest that, in reality, he’s mostly a pragmatic moderate in terms of his actual likely policymaking.